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[ Opinion ] [ Science and Tech ]

Has Uber Really Reduced DUI/DWI Rates in American Cities?

By Sarah Morris

For any readers who have had their heads in the proverbial sand for the last five years, Uber is a taxicab-service mobile app that allows users to arrange a ride from a local driver. Any adult can sign up to be a driver after being subject to driving and criminal background checks. Best of all, payment is processed through a credit card linked to the app, thus avoiding that awkward “to tip, or not to tip” moment which many of us have encountered in traditional taxicabs.

As an experienced city-dweller, I have had my share of pre-Uber, late-evening phone calls to check on the arrival time for a traditional cab which I booked an hour earlier, only to be told for the second or third time that “he’s just down the road.” Ride-sharing apps such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar offer quicker and cheaper alternatives, as well as the ability to call your driver and track how far away they are. Irrespective of the many controversies surrounding issues like employment rights, licensing, and Uber’s market share and growth strategies, these customer benefits are self-evident.

However, in 2014 Uber published an article making the bold assertion that the company has also achieved what many law- and policy-makers have spent countless hours and tax-payer dollars on research and initiatives in an effort to accomplish: Uber says it has reduced the number of people driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol in the US cities in which it operates.

By some logic, if ride-sharing apps such as Uber provide safe alternatives to traditional taxicabs which are cheaper, quicker, and easier to order, why wouldn’t they provide more of an incentive to leave the car at home before a night at the pub? Perhaps the clue is in the reasons why many people drive while under the influence in the first place.

Why People Drink And Drive

First is the “It won’t happen to me” syndrome. Some people who drive after consuming alcohol or drugs simply fail to consider the potential repercussions of their actions. If they do, they often assume that they will be safe to drive because they are so close to home. They may also assume that they will drive particularly carefully or, even worse, that they will drive well because they were fine the last time they had a few too many drinks before driving. These people are unlikely to be won over by Uber’s services because if “it isn’t going to happen to me” anyway, why not drive?

Secondly are those with a lack of knowledge or awareness. These people are genuinely unaware that by having an extra beer before getting behind the wheel, they are putting themselves over the legal limit and endangering themselves and anyone near them on the road. Others find it easy to lose track of how many times their glass has been topped up, or didn’t feel drunk the last time they had a similar amount. (There is also a common misconception that it is ok to drive after taking prescription drugs which, in some states, includes medical marijuana)

Since a wide range of factors can have an impact on how drugs or alcohol affect us from one occasion to the next, including weight, gender, how much we have eaten throughout the day, and even hormone levels, there is no exact science about how much alcohol, if any, is “safe” to drink before driving. However, this category of intoxicated drivers won’t be convinced by Uber’s convenient rides either, because they don’t realize that they are taking a risk by driving.

Lastly, there are those who rationalize the situation by saying “We can’t get home unless one of us drives” or “I don’t want to be an inconvenience by asking my partner/friend/parents for a ride home.” Failure to plan a designated driver, or plans falling through, can lead to rash decisions.

It is this last group of people whom Uber could help to avoid driving while impaired. But in reality, has the app really made a difference? What evidence is there to back up Uber’s controversial claim, and has Uber really reduced drink driving in American cities?

Uber’s Evidence

Uber’s boast was based on a study involving two cities: Seattle and San Francisco. Taking the total number of DUIs (relating to intoxication from either, or both, drugs and alcohol) shortly before until shortly after Uber’s introduction in each city, the article’s author calculated that there were just over 10 percent less DUIs after Uber started operating (equivalent to 0.7 percent less DUIs per day).

Is this a coincidence? Uber says not. They argue that similar results in two different cities across two states show that the app has caused these drops in DUIs. Certain points are difficult to contend: evidence does suggest that there was a drop in DUIs in both case-study cities, and that this occurred around the time when Uber began operating. The debatable part of Uber’s claim rests in the assertion of causality between the two occurrences.

What Else Could Have Caused the Drop in DUIs?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a part of the US federal Department of Health and Human Services, there has been a national drop in deaths resulting from traffic accidents involving at least one driver who was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In 2009, an average of 29 people were killed in such incidents each day, compared to approximately 27 per day in 2013. Assuming that a constant annual number of DUIs would yield approximately the same number of deaths caused in DUI-related traffic accidents each year, this indicates a general downward trend in DUIs throughout the US. Additional evidence for this trend can be seen in the CDC’s report of an estimated 30% drop in self-reported impaired drivers between 2006 and 2010.

On top of this, Seattle and San Francisco are both located in states which saw a lower number of deaths caused in DUI traffic incidents in 2012 than the national average that year. Since many cities in Washington and California did not yet have an Uber branch in 2012, there must have been other factors adding to their lower than average incident rates.

Both states have Ignition Interlocking Device (“IID”) laws; IIDs essentially prevent the person in the driver seat from starting a car if the alcohol level on their breath is above a prescribed level. Although the CDC released an impact report in 2011 referencing studies which showed that IIDs can reduce DUI reoffending by approximately two-thirds, not all states have introduced them.

In 2009, Washington introduced a mandatory one year minimum IID requirement for first time DUI offenders, increasing to five year and ten year minimums for second and third offenses, respectively. California’s law is not as strict, but still requires IIDs for anyone caught driving on a license which was suspended as a result of a DUI conviction. California also allows sobriety checkpoints, which the CDC estimates lead to a 20 percent decrease in crashes involving impaired persons, and has a separate law preventing drivers from carrying open bottles of alcohol unless they are stored in the trunk. Such laws imply that Washington and California may be more proactively trying to reduce incidents of impaired driving than other states, and could have contributed to the state-wide drops in DUIs.

Moreover, Washington’s Target Zero (Washington State Strategic Highway Safety Plan 2013) has been active since not long after Uber became operational in Seattle. The aim of Target Zero is to reduce traffic deaths and serious injury to zero by 2030. Since over half of all traffic deaths in Washington State between 2009 and 2011 involved an impaired driver, increasing education about and enforcement of DUIs is a key aim of Target Zero. Amongst other things, DUI Squads have been introduced and advertised in certain counties including King County, home to Seattle. Logically, if residents are made aware that extra enforcement efforts are being focused on a specific, prohibited activity, and participants therefore have a greater chance of being caught, they are less likely to take the risk.

On a related note, the Washington Post reported that San Francisco actually saw an increase in DUIs shortly before the drop Uber credits itself with. Perhaps what Uber is marketing as a “drop” in DUIs is nothing more than the end of an unusual peak, which coincidentally happened at the same time that Uber entered the market.

Support for Uber’s DUI Boast

Other groups have recognized the potential impact that Uber could have on reducing drink driving. For example, in 2013 the NFL began a partnership with Uber through which it offered players $200 in free rides through the app. The number of DUI arrests of NFL players fell by almost half from 2012-13 to 2014-15, after the start of this partnership. However, it is difficult to isolate the impact of this specific initiative, especially given the increased efforts to reduce DUIs within the NFL more generally after the infamous 2012 case involving the death of Jerry Brown after his Dallas Cowboys teammate, Josh Brent, crashed when driving with a BAC of 0.189. also partnered with Uber to offer a $20 discount for first time users, citing this as a “passenger protection tool” and a way to avoid riding with a driver who has been drinking.

Enough Evidence, Has Uber Reduced DUIs?!

There are a number of problems with Uber’s assertion:

-It is not possible to isolate the impact of Uber from the impact of the factors mentioned above as well as other initiatives aimed at reducing the number of people driving while impaired.

-Since it only began operating in 2010, Uber’s claim was based on, at most, four years of DUI statistics. Most studies on the impact of environmental changes on a certain behavior in the population would continue for longer and assess the possible impact of other influences before announcing a positive result. When considering this alongside the general downward trend in DUIs over the last ten years, Uber’s claim becomes somewhat watered down.

-Whilst Uber’s claim related to DUIs specifically, the number of DUI convictions are not necessarily reflective of the number of people driving while impaired. Increases or decreases in policing, time dedicated to the enforcement of our roads, and attitudes towards prosecution could all affect DUI numbers without effecting how many people are driving under the influence. Based on the number of arrests compared to self-reported incidents, the CDC estimates that less than 1 percent of impaired drivers are arrested.

The above three points aside, ride-sharing apps clearly offer an easier and more cost- and time-efficient way of travelling without driving. Perhaps it was wrong for Uber to claim all of the glory for the drop in DUIs, but it is likely that these apps have been a contributing factor. While Uber can’t actually take the keys from the drunk person leaving a bar who thinks they are safe to drive, it can offer a helping hand to those responsible enough to realize that their extra glass of wine could cost them more than a taxi ride should they choose to drive.